Silvio Berlusconi is, in his own words, “the best political leader in Europe and the world.” To most foreign commentators, however, he is at best a carefree, flamboyant playboy who likes to throw sexy parties at his Sardinian Villa. He makes Hugh Hefner seem an amateur, and Bill Clinton a choir boy. At worst, he is accused of being a supremely corrupt businessman, with excessive control over the nation’s media, alleged links to the mafia, and a predisposition for bribery and fraud. Defending this ex-cruise ship crooner might therefore seem as difficult as supporting the intentions of a charming spotty-faced, white tracksuit-laden youth who likes to loiter around bus stops at three in the morning. But there are arguments in favour of the Italian Prime Minister, and they merit attention, starting with his gaffes and highly charged libido.
Berlusconi is often ridiculed in the media for his outlandish remarks and apparent inability to control his more basic instincts. Last week, he managed to combine both by intervening in the release of a 17 year old belly dancer who attended parties at his house and stating in the process that it is “better to like beautiful girls than to be gay.” But a wavering eye towards the opposite sex does not necessarily have any direct bearing on a person’s ability to be competent in the work place. Bill Clinton’s adventures with Monika Lewinsky did not stop him from leaving office with the highest approval rating of any US president since the 2nd World War, and did not detract from his role in supervising the longest period of peace-time economic growth in US history.
That Berlusconi likes to provoke the media with regular witticisms should, in principle, also be irrelevant to his ability to address the nation’s concerns. Boris Johnson is renowned for his penchant to crack the occasional gag (who can forget his call for the Tories to be the “meat” in the coalition government’s sausage), yet since being Mayor of London he has defied the critics who had haughtily predicted that City Hall would collapse into a complete shambles. Berlusconi’s policies and legal accusations aside, therefore, his fondness for jokes and fruity girls is irrelevant to his capability to govern Italy. To his critics it is, if anything, a dangerous distraction from the far more serious legal crimes he is charged with. It serves to portray him as a bumbling fool instead of a hardened and ruthless businessman.
Then there is the weakness of the opposition. Berlusconi is the second longest-serving Prime Minister of Italy. He has held the job on three separate occasions: from 1994 to 1995, from 2001 to 2006 and since 2008. Only one Italian government has lasted a full five-year term in the past fifty years, and that is Berlusconi’s from 2001 to 2006. In 2006, he lost the election to Romano Prodi by a whisker – only to see the new government collapse in 2008. The left are not strong enough to fight back. In essence, whatever the pitfalls of Berlusconi, the sad fact is that there is currently no one better to run the country. It is plausible that if he were ousted today, the work he has done to help Italy avoid the credit concerns that have swamped Greece would become undone by the renewed politically unstable climate.
But whether Berlusconi is, in his own immortal words, “the right man in the right job” might just not be the most important thing. Italy is a place where masochistic lamentation is pervasive and Italians fail all too often to recognise the good things Italy has to offer. People may laugh at Italy and its politics, but nothing can detract from the historical and artistic might of cities such as Florence, Rome, and Venice or the talents of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo Galilei. Nothing can hide the flavour of an Alba truffle, a chunk of bistecca alla Fiorentina, or the delectable sip of Napolitan limoncello. Italians like to live well. They are more likely to argue about their gnocchi than their politics. Perhaps Berlusconi has done so well simply because his party is called “Forza Italia!” (literally “Come on Italy!”), akin to the chants heard across the country on a Sunday’s Serie A match day when the passionate tifosi cry out “Forza Juve!”, “Forza Inter!”, “Forza Milan!” And perhaps they have got the balance right - to quote the illustrious composer Giuseppe Verdi “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”